When you listen to a song in a language you understand, the words at least are familiar even if their precise sense can’t always be inferred. But what thoughts are expressed in the songs of other languages? What worlds are created in those words? It could be the romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, or it could be the weekly shopping list. It could be an invitation to dance; it could be an incitement to rebellion.
Even when you know and understand the lyrics, there’s a certain romance and fantasy in the sound of a song of another culture, another country.
20 tracks, then, from different times and places. There’s a bias towards French and Spanish speaking countries, but the playlist will take you from South America through Africa and into Europe.
Buena Vista Social Club - Chan Chan
Wim Wenders’ 1998 documentary account of the Cuban music of Ibrahim Ferrer and friends introduced a lost world to millions, and took some of its stars on a journey from forgotten musicians to a rapturous reception at Carnegie Hall. 16 years on its surviving members, joined by rising Cuban stars, are out on a farewell tour. All I will say is that it is worth catching for the remarkable Omara Portuondo, a mere 83 years old and still capable of captivating an audience of thousands.
Staff Benda Bilili - Osali Mabe
Four paraplegic singer/guitarists form the core of the band, assisted by a “hype man” on crutches who whips the crowd into a frenzy, and backed by an all-acoustic rhythm section pounding out tight grooves. Then, on top of everything, are those inimitable and infectious solos performed by a teenage prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.<a href=”https://www.crammed.be/index.php?id=34&art_id=146” title=”Band bio at Crammed Discs”>Crammed Discs</a>
Raul Seixas - Metamorfose Ambulante
Taken from Seixas’ debut album Krig-ha, Bandolo!, named after a Tarzan war cry meaning “Watch out, the enemy is near!”. In 2002, Metamorfose Ambulante appeared on the soundtrack to City of God. In 2007 it was listed by Rolling Stone in Brazil as the 39th greatest Brazilian song of all time.
Jorge Ben - Mais Que Nada
Staying in Brazil, but shooting up into the Top 5 on that Rolling Stone list, with a song by Jorge Ben that was more famously covered by Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, and then later nearly destroyed by Mendes and The Black Eyed Peas. This original is a late substitute into the list on account of it being peerlessly brilliant.
Tomas Andersson Wij - Mina Daliga Gener
-M- Ma Melodie
The character ‑M- is a superhero, noted for having a playful nature, and recognized for his flamboyant costumes (primarily monochrome suits with slim trousers and long jackets with upward pointed collars) and hair styled into the shape of an M.
Malajube - Etienne D’aout
Taken from the Canadian rock group’s 2006 album Trompe-l’Oeil.
Carla Bruni - Quelqu’un M’a Dit
Born into a musical family in Turin, Bruni is presumably the only person whose “Known for” section on Wikipedia reads: “Modelling and singing careers, marriage to French president”. Quelqu’un M’a Dit is the title track from her 2003 debut album.
Tindersticks - Plus De Liaisons
There is a small and not particularly grand tradition of English groups re-recording French versions of their songs. Blur’s To The End (French Version) could have got the nod here, but the fact that they couldn’t even be bothered to translate the title of the song means they’re given the hook in favour of Stuart Staples, whose personal count of languages he sounds sad in currently stands at 2.
Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
Lazy old Blur could learn a lesson or two from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, who invented a whole language - Vonlenska, or Hopelandic as it is sometimes prosaically known in English - for some of their songs. Not Agaetis Byrjun, though, which is sung in Icelandic, and means A new beginning. It is the title track of their second album, which gave the band their breakthrough, and is so beautiful and gentle I firmly believe I could listen to it non-stop for about three years without growing tired. I say that, but then the BBC tried a similar experiment with Hoppipolla, and look how that turned out.
”Ingenting” - Punkdrömmar
Ingenting, meaning “nothing” in Swedish, are one of a clutch of excellent artists signed to the Labrador label, and the first on the label to sing in Swedish. And it’s at this point that I come to slightly regret not including an old Abba performance in this playlist, or perhaps a little something from The Hootenanny Singers or The Hep Stars. But that’s by-the-by - Punkdrömmar (“Punk dreams”) is a glorious Wannadies-esque indie-pop celebration.
Tinawiren - Toumast Tincha
Tinarwiren (the name means “deserts”) are a group of Tuareg musicians from Mali. Formed in exile in Libya in 1989, the group has been known internationally for the last decade or so. Toumast Tincha is the opening track from their 2014 album Emmaar, which was their first not to be recorded in Mali, after members of the band fled their home country in the face of persecution from Islamic militants fiercely opposed to Tinawiren’s “satanic music”.
Victor Jara - Vientos del Pueblo
A member of the nueva canción movement in Chile, and a friend and supporter of president Salvador Allende, Victor Jara was one of the first victims of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Imprisoned, tortured, then finally murdered by Pinochet’s death squad, Jara was still writing during his final few days; the final lyrics he scribbled were smuggled out in another prisoner’s shoe.
There are six of us - lost in space among the stars,
One dead, one beaten like I never believed a human could be so beaten.
The other four wanting to leave all the terror,
One leaping into space, other beating their heads against the wall
All with gazes fixed on death.
Victor Jara - Estadio Chile
You don’t need to understand the lyrics of Vientos del Pueblo to understand the passion and feeling that is contained within. With the knowledge of Jara’s life and death in mind it’s impossible not to be moved as his voice and the song rise in calm defiance.
Thievery Corporation - El Pueblo Unido
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!
“The people united will never be defeated” declares one of the songs of the Chilean nueva canción movement. After the 1973 coup it became an anthem of the resistance. Thievery Corporation’s pretty easy-listening electronica might seem like an unworthy appropriation of the slogan, but the album that the song appears on, Radio Retaliation, is more politically furious than you might otherwise expect from one of the early 2000s chill-out vanguard.
Jeanne Moreau - Le Tourbillon
Written for Moreau by Serge Rezvani, Le Tourbillon (“The Whirlwind”) wasn’t originally intended for public consumption, but eventually found its way into the film Jules et Jim, as it was lyrically suited to the character of Catherine, played by Moreau. In the film, Moreau sings the song accompanied by Rezvani on guitar (if my reading of a French page about the song is accurate, that is…)
Bebel Gilberto - Samba da Bencao
It’s hard to disagree with the lyrical bent of this incredibly laid-back, Amon Tobin-sampling track:
It’s better to be happy than sad
Happiness is the best thing there is
Quimby - Auto egy szerpentinen
And so RRP gets its first Hungarian song, called, if my Hungarian is any good (and it really isn’t) Car on a winding road. Although Quimby have been together since the early ‘90s you’ve probably never heard of them, and you’ve probably also never heard of Turo Rudi (essentially a bar of quark wrapped in chocolate), adverts for which featured this song in 2011.
Yann Tiersen - Plus d’hiver
Yann Tiersen’s the kind of composer whose name is met by blank faces for only as long as it takes to say the name Amelie, the soundtrack for which is his best-known work. Here he makes for a seductive combination with Jane Birkin on vocals.
Orchestra Baobab - Bul Ma Min
Not for the first time in this playlist, I can’t really do justice to the history of a band in a mere paragraph. Formed in 1970, Orchestra Baobab started out playing in an upmarket Dakar club, fusing Cuban sounds with Senegalese, Portuguese and whatever felt right. After disbanding in 1985, Orchestra Baobab returned with a new album Specialist in All Styles in 2001, featuring cameos from the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social Club) and production by Youssou N’Dour.
Amadou et Miriam - Taxi Bamako
No matter what festival you’re at, forget the headliners. Don’t worry that they might not be up to scratch, don’t worry that they’re not your first choice. Once they’re done with their hit parade, or maybe part-way through their set, just wander off in no particular direction, with no fixed destination in mind. At some point you’ll probably come across a tent. Go in, because that’s where you’ll find the magical moment.
It’s where I found Amadou et Miriam at Latitude one year, and while I know getting to the second stage at the UK’s middle-class festival of choice isn’t exactly Walkabout, it is where I found myself listening to the last few tracks and encore of Amadou et Miriam’s set without knowing a thing about them beforehand. Those few moments of unadulterated love and fun will always rank as one of my most joyously uplifting festival memories, perhaps memories of any kind, and I say that as a hardcore lover of miserable indie music.
Quick Bonus Track
As I said up top I’ve relied pretty heavily on a few languages for this list, and it hasn’t escaped me that there is a vast part of the world that I seem to be blind / deaf to. With that in mind, here’s a cheeky bonus track taken from a superb Canary Records compilation called Love is a One-Way Traffic: Groovy East Asian Chicks, 1960s-70s.